Desperation grows among Palestinians trapped in Gaza with little aid

Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of reservist Master Sgt. Gil Daniels during his funeral in Ashdod, Israel, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Daniels was killed in Gaza during an Israeli military ground offensive against the enclave's militant Hamas rulers. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
Israeli soldiers carry the coffin of reservist Master Sgt. Gil Daniels during his funeral in Ashdod, Israel, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Daniels was killed in Gaza during an Israeli military ground offensive against the enclave's militant Hamas rulers. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Desperation grew Thursday among Palestinians largely cut off from supplies of food and water as Israeli forces engaged in fierce urban battles with Hamas militants. Strikes in the southern Gaza town of Rafah sowed fear in one of the last places where civilians could seek refuge.

United Nations officials say there are no safe places in Gaza nearly a week after Israel widened its offensive into the southern half of the territory. Heavy fighting in and around the city of Khan Younis has displaced tens of thousands of people and cut most of Gaza off from aid deliveries. More than 80 percent of the territory's population has already fled their homes.

Two months into the war, the grinding offensive has triggered renewed international alarm. U.N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres used a rarely exercised power to warn the Security Council of an impending "humanitarian catastrophe" in Gaza and urged members to demand a cease-fire.

Gutteres explicitly cited Article 99 of the U.N. Charter, which allows the secretary-general to bring to the council's attention any matter which he believes threatens international peace and security. The power has only been used a handful of times in the history of the world body.

The United States, Israel's closest ally, appears likely to block any U.N. effort to halt the fighting. Still, U.S. concern over the devastation was growing. Before the southern offensive, U.S. officials told Israel it must limit civilian deaths and displacement, saying too many Palestinians were killed when it obliterated much of Gaza City and the north.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said casualties are still too high in a call with Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, a senior State Department official said.

Blinken told Dermer that Israel must step up efforts to reduce casualties and do more to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza. The official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss the private diplomatic discussion, would not characterize Dermer's response.

Israel says it must crush Hamas' military capabilities and remove it from power following the Oct. 7 attack that ignited the war.

In photos and video published Thursday, at least 100 Palestinian men are seen sitting in rows on a street in northern Gaza, stripped down to their underwear with their heads bowed as they are being guarded by Israeli troops. The Al-Araby Al-Jadeed news outlet said its correspondent Diaa Al-Kahlout was among those detained and had been taken to an unknown location.

The images were the first showing such detentions in the Israeli-Hamas war. Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said Israeli troops have detained and interrogated hundreds of people in Gaza suspected of militant links.

Humanitarian crisis worsens

In a sign of the growing desperation, thousands of Palestinians were crushed together Thursday waiting to receive aid at a U.N. distribution center in Gaza's central city of Deir al-Balah, the crowds growing more frantic as they swelled.

Residents said the scene of chaos had become common in Deir al-Balah, where a trickle of humanitarian aid is met by hordes of hungry and exhausted families sheltering in U.N. schools or with relatives. Rami Ashour, one those waiting Thursday morning, said he left when it seemed hopeless his turn would come to pick up a ration of flour.

Deir al-Balah is trapped between ground fighting in northern Gaza and in Khan Younis to the south, but has continued to come under bombardment. Another 115 bodies arrived at the town's Al-Aqsa Martyrs Hospital during the past 24 hours, the international aid group Doctors Without Borders said.

"The hospital is full, the morgue is full," the group said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Only a few trucks have managed to reach central Gaza in recent days because fighting has largely prevented aid groups from distributing supplies beyond the area of Rafah, at Gaza's far southern end by the Egypt border, the U.N. said.

Rafah is part of the rapidly shrinking area where civilians can seek shelter, and tens of thousands of people have flowed into it, fleeing Khan Younis and other areas. The town, normally home to around 280,000 people, was already hosting more than 470,000 displaced people. Shelters and homes have overflowed, and many people have been sleeping in tents or in the streets.

Communicable diseases have significantly increased, along with cases of diarrhea, respiratory infections and hygiene-related conditions such as lice, the U.N. said. The World Food Program has warned of a "catastrophic hunger crisis."

Even in Rafah, safety has proven elusive,. Several strikes hit the town late Wednesday and early Thursday, sending a wave of wounded and dead streaming into a nearby hospital.

The military accused militants of firing rockets from open areas near Rafah. It released footage of a strike Wednesday on what it said were launchers positioned outside the town and a few hundred yards from a U.N. warehouse.

Meanwhile, entry of aid has slowed. The U.N. said only 80 aid trucks entered Gaza from Egypt on Wednesday, less than half the daily amount during the weeklong cease-fire, which was still far below the population's needs.

The U.N. says some 1.87 million people -- more than 80 percent of Gaza's population of 2.3 million -- have left their homes, and many of them have been displaced multiple times.

Israel's campaign has killed more than 17,100 people in Gaza -- 70 percent of them women and children -- and wounded more than 46,000, according to the territory's Health Ministry, which says many others are trapped under rubble. The ministry does not differentiate between civilian and combatant deaths.

Hamas and other militants killed about 1,200 people, mostly civilians, in the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war and resulted in the taking of some 240 people hostage. An estimated 138 hostages remain in Gaza, mostly soldiers and civilian men, after 105 were freed during a cease-fire in late November.

Battles in north, south

Troops have pushed into Khan Younis, Gaza's second-largest city, which Israeli officials have portrayed as Hamas' center of gravity -- something they previously said was in Gaza City and its Shifa Hospital. A built-up refugee camp inside the city was the childhood home of Hamas' top leader in Gaza, Yehya Sinwar, and the group's military chief, Mohammed Deif, as well as other Hamas leaders -- though their current whereabouts are unknown.

In the afternoon, a heavy strike in the center of Khan Younis left a large field of rubble, and survivors said many people were believed buried underneath. Rescuers pulled bloodied women and children from the shells of nearby buildings gutted in the blast, and a pickup truck rushed off carrying several wounded men.

The military said Thursday it struck dozens of militant targets in Khan Younis, including a tunnel shaft from which fighters had launched an attack. It said two of the attackers were killed.

Heavy fighting was also still underway in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, even after two months of heavy bombardment and encirclement by ground troops. The military said troops raided a militant compound, killing a number of fighters and uncovering a network of tunnels.

The military said its forces were fighting "in close-quarter combat" with militants in the nearby northern Gaza district of Shujaiya, including militants found in a tunnel under a school. The reports could not be independently confirmed.

photo Mourners comfort Mazal Daniels, center, the mother of Israeli reservist Master Sgt. Gil Daniels during his funeral in Ashdod, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Daniels was killed in Gaza during an Israeli military ground offensive against the enclave's militant Hamas rulers. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
photo Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip arrive at a hospital in Rafah on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)
photo Israeli soldiers operate a drone near the Israeli-Gaza border, southern Israel, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
photo An Israeli Apache helicopter fires a missile in direction of the Gaza Strip, as seen from southern Israel, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
photo Palestinians wounded in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip arrive at a hospital in Rafah, on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
photo An Israeli soldier reacts next to the grave of reservist Master Sgt. Gil Daniels during his funeral in Ashdod, Israel, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. Daniels was killed in Gaza during an Israeli military ground offensive against the enclave's militant Hamas rulers. (AP Photo/Leo Correa)
photo Palestinians flee the Israeli ground offensive in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)
photo Palestinians displaced by the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip set up a tent camp in Rafah on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Ali)
photo Palestinians flee the Israeli ground offensive in Khan Younis, Gaza Strip, Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2023. (AP Photo/Mohammed Dahman)